People living in deprived areas in Europe often complain that our societies offer them nothing; no job, no future, no hope. Whether or not this is true, we ignore them at our peril. We must fill this empty space with real opportunities and a positive vision of a strong, fair and inclusive Europe, in which everyone can live together in peace. And we must act now. Otherwise, as we have already seen, disenchantment with democracy sets in. Many people – especially young people – see no point in voting. They may have no confidence in politicians and prefer to concentrate on private concerns, or feel little commitment to society or the common good. Although they may be mobilised by single issues; single-issue politics does not make up an overall vision for society. Social media is a popular form of participation, but is not a substitute for real activism.

What happens in schools? When young people express controversial views, it can be alarming, and such views can pose real risks to social cohesion. Suppressing them, however, is counter-productive. In the battle of ideas, closing down opportunities to discuss controversial or shocking points of view just doesn’t work. In such circumstances, rather than risk being criticised, singled out or punished for their opinions, pupils suppress their views and keep their concerns and thoughts to themselves.

The disaffected may be attracted to political parties and groups which oppose democratic values and human rights. In the most extreme cases, they fall prey to terrorist organisations. Daesch has succeeded in recruiting thousands of Europeans, with prisons, in particular, becoming breeding grounds for radicalisation. The resulting slaughter of innocent people and its aftermath – the carnage in Brussels being among the most recent atrocities – threatens to undermine the stability of European societies.

In the face of terrorism, growing political alienation and disenchantment with democracy, the alternative must be crystal clear.

Is more surveillance, less freedom of expression and more border control the only way forward?

The Council of Europe offers its 47 Member States a different approach and a different vision; it provides tools and standards to help build inclusive societies, a Europe where people value others and feel valued in their turn, where they have a stake in Europe and do not want to undermine or destroy its values. Here, the key is education.

Of course, this can only happen if people living in Europe know how to be active and responsible members of society, which is not as straight-forward as it may seem. They need first to take human rights, democracy and the rule of law as the overarching standards that apply to us all. And then, they need democratic attitudes, skills, values, knowledge and understanding which enable them to, for example: participate in respectful debate and intercultural dialogue, oppose hate speech, intolerance, prejudice and discrimination and see through propaganda.

No-one is born with these competences; they have to be learnt. How?

This is the subject of the Council of Europe’s Education Ministers Conference, meeting in Brussels from 11-12 April – entitled “Securing Democracy through Education” – where we are launching our pioneering work on Competences for Democratic Culture.

There are 20 competences, under four headings: values, including valuing human rights and human dignity; attitudes, including respect, civic-mindedness and responsibility; skills, including empathy and conflict-resolution skills; and knowledge and critical understanding, including of the self and of the world. Each competence will be explained through ‘descriptors’; these are benchmarks which help set learning targets and show that a competence has been acquired.

The framework will be available for use in primary and secondary schools and higher education and vocational training institutions throughout Europe. Nothing so comprehensive has ever before been attempted at European level. Migrants, refugees, the police and people in non-formal and adult education should also benefit.

This project is part of the Council of Europe’s long-standing work on human rights and citizenship education, going back some 60 years, which aims to make such an education available to European citizens. 

All this is long-term work, requiring solid commitment and investment. But, it is not costly compared to dealing with the fallout from terrorism and the breakdown of democracy. We are looking to Europe’s education ministers to pave the way. There are no short cuts.